Wildfires in Central Oregon are, once again, making their mark on the state, causing a lasting impact on the health of residents in surrounding towns. The Two Bulls fire continues to rage west of Bend, close to the tiny town of Tumalo and the Tumalo Reservoir, creating a flurry of concern among locals in areas all over Central Oregon. As of Wednesday morning, the fire had tarnished nearly 7000 acres of dry brush and forest. In the early morning, residents in many parts of the area can see smoke floating through the air and settling on the ground like fog. Stepping outside, one cannot help but breathe in the remnant smoke from the blazes.
Working around the clock, fire crews have managed to contain forty percent of the Two Bulls wildfire. The expectant onset of cooler weather brings hope that the containment percentage will rise. Residents previously evacuated from the subdivision known as Saddleback, and local schools and businesses, have now received the okay to return, but District Forester George Ponte warns that many areas of the state are suffering from below-average rainfall for the year. Now dealing with a shortage of water, along with mild drought conditions, Ponte expresses a major concern that parallels the fears of many Central Oregonians: What does this mean for both human and animal health?
Central Oregon’s landscape is full of open fields, littered with cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock, that help promote farming communities throughout the state. The majority of these fields are also strewn with dry brush and surrounded by the type of forest easily prone to catching fire. With high winds from Oregon mountain air, these wildfires can spread quickly and without warning, making the impact on resident livestock and animal health quite detrimental. In general, the effects of wildfires on pets, livestock, and wildlife, are either immediate or secondary, depending on things like fire type, severity and intensity, as well as timing and size. Immediate impacts include animals fleeing fires or seeking refuge, in turn causing direct injury and even mortality, while secondary impacts often involve the alteration of forage productivity, as well as effecting animal performance, such as breeding issues. While direct effects can have considerable significance, secondary effects often have the greatest impact on resident animals. Also of great concern, is the fact that wildfire smoke often causes eye and respiratory issues, which can develop into pneumonia and bronchial problems. More importantly is the long-term result. Particulates from wildfire smoke can alter the immune system, reducing the ability of the lungs to remove bacteria and pollen, to which livestock and other animals are most typically exposed.
Many studies have been performed on the effects of wildfires and human health. Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of fine particles and gases from plant materials and burning trees, which can cause serious health problems. It can aggravate asthma attacks and bronchitis, and can worsen chronic lung and heart diseases. Residents in Central Oregon, and other areas where wildfires are common, can experience everything from coughing to shortness of breath, headaches, and chest pain. For those who have been diagnosed with pre-existing conditions, such as heart and lung disease, these symptoms can be debilitating. One Central Oregon local, living in the small town of Redmond, just north of the Two Bulls blaze, expressed her discomfort in dealing with the effects of smoke on her breathing. “In suffering from COPD, I have to keep all the windows and doors shut, as much as possible. I can’t even leave the house at times, because the smoke makes it so much harder for me to breath.” It seems, Oregon resident or not, no one is immune to the impacts of wildfire smoke on their health. Studies have shown that expectant mothers, exposed to the smoke, often deliver newborns with lower birth rates. A Southern California study described one wildfire season in their area, resulting in nearly 70 premature deaths, and almost 800 hospitalizations. In that instance, there were over 45,000 outpatient visits. The majority of those were cardiovascular and respiratory health issues, aggravated by wildfire smoke exposure.
While there is no immediate way to avoid the onset of fires, there are ways for Central Oregon residents to aid in lessening the negative impacts of wildfires on their health, as well as protecting their homes. Project Wildfire in Deschutes County Oregon, is an organization established to maximize community efforts toward effective fire planning and reduction. According to program director Alison Green, there is still time for residents to make sure they have a defensible space. Ember showers are the greatest risk to homes during wildfires. Strong winds can carry embers up to three miles outside of an active fire, so it is important to be aware of what the most vulnerable places around homes are. Gutters filled with dry pine needles, woodpiles stacked too closely to homes, and bushes or shrubs that lead up to the home, can all contribute to house fires. In order for Central Oregon residents to protect their health, it is suggested that they pay attention to local air quality reports, use visibility guides, and if advised, stay indoors.
By Melissa A. White-Jantzen